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memoir: no matter how small

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(TW: graphic bodily descriptions)

I remember that my mother and I were out running errands, but not much else. I can’t tell you the time of day or year, if the leaves crinkled as their rust-coloured corpses tumbled through the sky, or if the scent of summer honeysuckle hung so thick you could almost taste it. These details are gone. They’ve been scrubbed from the stained fabric of my memory. And yet, blood on white carpet may fade, but it refuses to be scrubbed out completely. My mind’s eye will forever be drawn to darkness it can’t scour.

I do remember the sun, and that my mother and I were driving downtown looking for a parking spot. Just the two of us. Was I avoiding her gaze? Was she trying to make conversation that fell flat and hard in the dead air? I think about these things sometimes when the exact colour of her eyes evades me, think that maybe I should’ve looked a little harder. While my mother was trying to parallel-park, I noticed a group of people crowding around anxiously in front of us. They stood in the middle of an intersection. Traffic had stopped. I couldn’t see their faces, but there was a panic in the jarring way they swung their necks around, turning to whisper to people next to them before lunging up again to try and catch a glimpse of whatever they surrounded, whatever it was that they weren’t getting too close to.

A woman ran forward with a blanket. Her eyes were wide and scared so that she looked almost like a child. She reminded me of footage I’d seen on TV from 9/11. The circle of people opened to let her through, revealing the object of attention for anyone to see. All I had to do was look.

A tragedy’s a tragedy, no matter how small, and everyone tunes in.

I almost didn’t look.

I saw a face, no, no, I saw parts of a face, smashed into the pavement like a pieces of gravel embedded in the sole of your foot. Shattered cheek bones and cracked sockets overflowing with jelly that used to be eyes. There was a shiny white window of skull, clean and bright amidst the mess of skin and hair torn loose around it. It looked almost intact, round like a little planet.

The neck, scraped clean of skin, was turned toward me, snapped into a horrifying ninety-degree angle. A jaw full of crooked yellow shards all washed in red hung open as wide as a nutcracker’s. Ligaments had been pulled passed their limit and bulged out of still flesh. It was only a moment before the blanket hid the dead man from sight, but it was enough for the scene to sear itself onto the backs of my eyelids, to make a permanent home in the darkest crevice of my memory.

In my state of panic, I hadn’t noticed that our car had stopped moving. A cold sweat enveloped me from the inside out, making my skin damp and slimy. My mother was rummaging in her purse. There was a small frown on her face, the kind she wore when she couldn’t find the right coupons. She sighed, the breath crawling slowly from between her lips. I thought I might throw up.

“That poor man,” she commented offhandedly. “I hope it happened quick. Don’t forget to say a prayer for him and his family.”

She flipped the lock on the door deftly with her thumb, the small click sounding louder than I’d ever heard it. Her hand moved to the lever that would open the door. She began to pull it toward her.

“NO!”

She stopped. Neither of us moved. I had never made a sound like that before, not since I was a little girl and would crawl into my mother’s bed after a nightmare. It was a desperate shriek, or maybe more of a squeal, like a pig waiting in line at the slaughterhouse. A frantic delirium held me tight in its grip. I was scared, more scared than I’d ever been about a nightmare. I was scared that if I got out of the car, something was going to grab me and drag me to the morgue with the dead man and I’d be dumped inside one of those icy metal coffins and left to rot forever. All I could see was a mess of melting eyes and yellow teeth all stained with blood.

My mother’s fingers brushed my arm.

“Hey, what’s wrong? Are you okay?”

In that moment I watched her transform. In the sudden serious and sincere light of her eyes I saw her cancel all her plans, in the furrowed dip of her brow I saw her toss out to-do lists and coupons without a second thought. I saw my mother take my hand and tuck her whole self between the folds of my fingers, knowing nothing else except that I needed her, and that was enough. A tragedy’s a tragedy, no matter how small.

“Mom, I just, I can’t go out there…I just, I don’t know.”

My eyes flicked involuntarily toward the ambulance that had pulled up next to the dispersing crowd. My mother followed my gaze. I heard her breathe out slowly, like she did before she prayed. She smiled a little, in her sad, secret way, and started the car without saying a word. But then, so softly I almost didn’t catch it, she whispered, “It’s okay baby, it’s gonna be okay.”

I pressed my lips together and wiped at the tears beginning to pool in the corners of my eyes. My mother was protecting me, shielding me with her whole self from anything I asked to be shielded from. I felt like a child again. All I had needed was my mother to tell me that everything was going to be okay, and suddenly it was again. It’s not so simple now, not so easy to wash away the bad until it’s okay, sometimes it’s impossible.

Before we drove away, my mother stared straight into the sun and didn’t squint at all.

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